For Bruce-ophiles, the release of a four-CD, 66-song set of mostly unreleased recordings collected over a 25-year career must seem like one of those dreams come true that Springsteen has always told his fans they couldn't expect-not from life, and certainly not from him.
Springsteen's glory days-from the early '70s (when he staked his claim to become the World's Greatest Rocker) to the mid-'80s (when for a few years, nobody could deny him the title)-are gone, and neither he nor his fans quite expect his music to redeem people's lives anymore. Then, redemption was the point: fallen Catholic that he was, Springsteen-in the face of rampant cultural cynicism-made rock & roll his substitute savior, and he built an altar out of passion plays like "Thunder Road," "Badlands," "The Ties That Bind," "Stolen Car," "Atlantic City" and "Born in the USA." Now, his longtime fans, under no illusion that rock can change their lives in their 40s the way it did when they were 17, are happy simply to hear him keep going-to keep ringing changes on the same eight or nine chords, the same metaphors of guys heading nowhere in cars; of girls putting their party dresses on; of flowing rivers, blue-collar deadends and sacred light.
They are good chords-and resilient metaphors-and as Springsteen has grown older, he's recast them, exposed their hidden depths, and gone on to erect the most complete, mythically charged vision of any rock artist since Bob Dylan paved Highway 61.
Unlike Dylan, though, or other pantheon rockers (Neil Young, Van Morrison, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards), Springsteen has never made a bad or indifferent album. Everyone knows that Dylan is worth about one good album a decade now, that Morrison's records are as scattershot as his concerts, and that the Stones' music of the past 20 years is so boring they hardly bother playing it in their stadium spectacles. That Springsteen's output has been mostly superb makes the high quality of a from-the-vaults CD set like Tracks that much more surprising. (When Dylan's Bootleg Series box set-the true album of comparison here-came out in 1991, what stunned and relieved his fans was that Dylan had actually made some great music in the '70s and '80s; he just didn't put much of it on his albums.)
In the 23 years since 1975's Born to Run, Springsteen has released just eight studio albums-a fact that pits his legendary control-freakism against his passion to make music -which means not only that his albums have tended to be high-octane distillates of that passion, but also that he's withheld at least three or four times what he's released.
Tracks is a compilation of, by my count, nine songs that were originally B-sides (some are alternate takes), two live recordings of previously unreleased songs, nine alternate takes of stuff from the albums, and 46 studio outtakes you could have only heard before on bootlegs. Given Springsteen's stubborn desire for coherence, he's stamped this set with a plot: Tracks presents a kind of shadow canon of his career, laying out the songs in a way that underscores the arc of his story much better than did his Greatest Hits. "Zero and Blind Terry," while sounding very The Wild, Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, clearly previews Boss-O-Ramic operettas like "Jungleland." "Rendezvous" is great midtempo '60s rock whose sentiments are Born to Run but whose arrangement is as lean as those on Darkness on the Edge of Town. "Where the Bands Are" could have been the rowdy track opening The River; "Brothers Under the Bridges ('83)" could have (should have) replaced "No Surrender" on Born in the USA; "The Wish," a song for Springsteen's mother, could have been paired with "Walk Like a Man," Tunnel of Love's homage to his father. And almost everything on the remarkable fourth CD could have been on Human Touch without disturbing that album's impact.
The "story" that Springsteen has been telling all this time and which gets reiterated with accumulating power on Tracks would seem less remarkable if Springsteen didn't end up enacting its heroism on a national stage. The story's backbone (and if you're sneering now, Springsteen will probably never mean much to you) is the belief that rock can blow you out of one life and into another, that rock's transformative power is a door into an American Promise that actually means something.
Beginning a career based on such an idealistic faith in 1972-when the country with which he identified so painfully had been almost entirely depleted of ideals by war, scandal and excess-has always cast Springsteen as a rear-guard artist, a "sincerist" who didn't get the joke, a rebel without the anarchist's requisite fuck-all ironic streak. While he auditioned "Mary Queen of Arkansas" and three other Jersey-shore-boy-longing-for-love songs for John Hammond in May 1972 (the opening songs on Tracks), the most bracing things in rock were David Bowie and the New York Dolls, image manipulators whose passion always had an irony out-clause. Springsteen's didn't: he was the true believer who openly said rock saved his life, and when he got onstage, he felt it was his job to try to give to his fans what Elvis, Roy Orbison, Dylan and a thousand one-shot artists on scratchy old 45s had done for him. The passing down of that essential rock legacy has been his guiding principle-his contract and promise-all along.
Disc One takes us from the 1972 audition through 1977: Springsteen starts out strumming and yelping solo and ends up screaming balls-out with the fully formed E Street Band. The early tracks are shapeless epics, audacious swings for the fences. But after the Born to Run sessions, he tames the bombast and formlessness and settles into a trust in simple rock & roll structures that he's kept to ever since. At the same time, his voice matures and splits into half a dozen personas, and his Jersey romanticism shapes itself into something darker, more comprehensively American.
And on Disc Two, more deadly. This disc presents music from The River and Nebraska years, when Springsteen freed himself from legal problems and the thought-brought home with depressing force on Darkness on the Edge of Town-that sometimes rock & roll couldn't afford to be any fun. There are long, celebrative stretches on this disc, especially from "Where the Bands Are" to "I Wanna Be With You," where Springsteen's invention seems effortless, where it's just one rocking track after another. There's also the chilling Nebraska-era version of "Born in the USA" and the excellent B-side "Shut out the Light," whose lyrics exemplify the narrative concision that Springsteen learned after Born to Run. There are missteps, too: two versions of "Be True," both of them inferior to a live version on the Chimes of Freedom EP.
Disc Three covers the Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love sessions. Springsteen had by now become so famous that his heroism consisted in struggling to keep his pact with the audience intact amidst the media blitz. (In 1985, he played a four-night stand at the LA Coliseum for 340,000 fans, and if you have any doubts about whether he delivered, listen to "Born in the USA" and "Seeds" from the live album.) He was for many a living embodiment of the promise he sung about, a poor boy who believed till he made good, who didn't compromise his principles, and who against all odds strided the mass-media blast to speak with unfettered integrity about American conditions both tragic and comic. This disc doesn't get going for a while, though; songs like the bloated "Frankie" don't help. But "Rockaway the Days," with a deceptively light three-chord progression and sly vocal delivery that belies the pathos of the lyric, is great. As is the rest of the disc, with Springsteen stringing together strong B-sides ("Pink Cadillac," "Janey Don't You Lose Heart" and "Lucky Man") with Tunnel of Love outtakes that point toward the inevitable rounding of Springsteen's career arc downward. Inevitable because nobody could sustain that kind of fame, not when "Born in the USA" was usurped by Ronald Reagan as a re-election ploy and by gone-tomorrow fans who thought it was the soundtrack to Rambo; not when the media backlash hit; not when Springsteen broke up the E Street Band; not when his first marriage flamed out when his extramarital affair with Patti Scialfa (whom he subsequently married) was plastered in the tabloids.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Disc Four is about picking up the pieces. In Songs, a coffee-table book of lyrics that's interspersed with Springsteen's commentary, he writes that in the two years after the Tunnel of Love tour, he "did very little musically." He waited until he had sifted through the firestorm of the late '80s-when the rock & roll promise he'd worked 15 years to create had crashed and burned-before he began to work again. Then, he says, he wrote exercises-pop melodies, R&B stompers, country-tinged ballads, rockabilly shuffles-as if he were starting over again; but this time, he was trusting the forms of rock to re-ignite his passion. Lots of critics of Human Touch and Lucky Town, the fruit of these exercises, complained that there was something by-the-numbers about them; but in hindsight-and with the evidence of the new songs-it's clear that, 25 years into the life, Springsteen has thrived by adhering to rock as a form, dwelling deep in its history, mythology and song structures. And that far from abandoning his faith in rock's redemptive power in the '90s, his willful submission to its formal limits-he won't express himself any other way (no movies, no books of "poetry," no collaborations with Burt Bacharach)-is a final testament to that faith. Disc Four's best songs, like "Gave It a Name" and "Loose Change," are performed mostly alone with simple guitar figures and synthesizer washes behind the lyrics, which befits Springsteen's lonely road toward finding an assured middle-aged voice. These songs-swirling with guilt, anguish and regret-almost always stem from sexual passion darkened by deceit, but they also convey a longing for love, beauty and, yes, redemption that is more alive-if more complicated-than ever.
The coffee-table book is another matter. At 50 bucks, it's an ostentatious bit of canonization prior to Springsteen's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and as a practical matter, it's unnecessary. Dylan did a lyrics book in the '80s, but since Dylan rarely prints his words on his albums, the book served a function. But aside from The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, Springsteen's albums have always included lyrics, and they read much better on an album sleeve than on glossy paper. Sure, to read through the words from his first 12 albums is a lesson in extraordinary rock craftsmanship: "Born to Run," "Thunder Road," "Born in the USA," "Tunnel of Love," "Living Proof" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" are such classic American narratives and their detail is so rich that they read like treatments for movies you're dying to see. But we already knew that. Springsteen's commentaries on each album aren't particularly revealing, and sometimes he's evasive, as in his discussion of Tunnel of Love, when he neglects to mention the fact that the album's impetus comes entirely from his first marriage.
I've always found Springsteen's humanism, however authentic, hard to defend-like explaining my love for Tolstoy to a deconstructionist. For much of the rock audience, Springsteen is too retro (the "I had a job; I had a girl" business), and his obsessive moral orientation-it's always about right and wrong, guilt and innocence-puts them off. People who grew up on Pearl Jam or Nine Inch Nails can embrace Neil Young, Tom Petty or Bowie, but Springsteen has no champion among '90s stars, which is either a reflection on the hugeness of his shadow or on his irrelevance. I suspect it's more the former. Springsteen is our premier rock classicist, and rock, however anarchic it gets in attitude, is traditional in form-it's three chords behind a singer wailing about the need for love and sex and understanding, same as it ever was-and so long as new artists care about keeping life in the tradition, they'll have to contend with the man who bet everything on that tradition giving him life.
Bruce Springsteen: Tracks, Columbia Records, andBruce Springsteen: Songs, Avon Books, 304 pages. Set, $50.